Misery and Slavery combined

John Francis Maguire
CHAPTER XI (8) start of chapter

The Inspector of the Eleventh District, Dr. Brown, states that nearly one-fifth of all the tenements are rear buildings, some of them of the lowest grade. They are generally contracted in size, shut out from the sunlight, and commonly are obstructions to light and ventilation in the front buildings. The interval between the front and rear house is frequently so small and sometimes so completely enclosed on all sides by the adjacent houses 'as to constitute a mere well-hole.' Referring to certain houses in Hammond and Washington Streets, the Inspector describes their inhabited cellars, the ceilings of which are below the level of the street, 'inaccessible to the rays of the sun, and always damp and dismal. Three of them are flooded at every rain, and require to be baled out. They are let at a somewhat smaller rent than is asked for apartments on the upper floor, and are rented by those to whom poverty leaves no choice. They are rarely vacant.'

Under the heading 'Rents,' we find the Inspector of the Fourth Sanitary District stating that 'in regular tenant houses the rent of each domicile (generally consisting of two rooms—a "living room" and a bedroom) at present averages $9 per month, or $108 the year.' The cellar is, we are informed, 'let at a somewhat lower rate' than the average mentioned.

From the Report of Dr. Furman, the Inspector of the Seventeenth Sanitary District, the following passage is extracted:—

Most of the larger tenant houses are in a state of muckiness, and as a rule, overcrowded, without ventilation or light. These are offensive enough (and incapable to preserve a normal standard of health); but the crowded rear tenant houses, completely cut off from ventilation and perhaps light, are still worse. They abound in dark, damp, and noisome basements and cellars, converted into sleeping apartments. In these the invigorating and health-preserving sunlight and fresh air are never accessible.

An illustration is given of one of these habitations, the 'living rooms' of which are nearly dark, and the dormitories' dark and damp.' The Report thus continues:—

Here we have low, damp, dark, and unventilated bed-rooms, whose inmates respire a murky air, and consort with snails, spiders, and muckworms. These underground habitations are most pernicious in laying the foundation for and developing strumous ophthalmia, hip-joint, and certain diseases of the spine, diseases of the respiratory organs (the chief of which is consumption), rheumatism, which in turn produces organic disease of the heart.

The picture would not be perfect without the following:—

They—the houses—are in many instances owned by large capitalists by whom they are farmed out to a class of factors, who make this their especial business. These men pay to the owner of the property a sum which is considered a fair return on the capital invested, and rely for their profits (which are often enormous) on the additional amount which they can extort from the wretched tenants whose homes frequently become untenantable for want of repairs, which the 'agent' deems it his interest to withhold. These men contrive to absorb most of the scanty surplus which remains to the tenants after paying for their miserable food, shelter, and raiment. They are, in many instances, proprietors of low groceries, liquor stores, and 'policy shops' connected with such premises, — the same individual often being the actual owner of a large number. Many of the wretched population are held by these men in a state of abject dependence and vassalage little short of actual slavery.

And this is in the greatest city of the Great Republic of the New World! The poor Irishman who leaves his own country to escape from the tyranny of the most grinding landlord, and becomes the slavish vassal of one of these blood-suckers, makes but a poor exchange. The 'improvement in his condition might be fittingly indicated by the homely adage,—'from the frying-pan into the fire.' The rudest hut in the midst of a forest, the loneliest cabin on the prairie, would be a palace to one of these abodes. Health, energy, independence, self-respect—the hopeful family growing up as strong as young lions, and fleet as antelopes—plenty for all, and a hearty welcome for the stranger and the wayfarer,—this is the country. What a contrast is it to the squalor, the debasement, and the slavery of the town—as described by a competent authority!

The Irish in America, first published in 1868, provides an invaluable account of the extreme difficulties that 19th Century Irish immigrants faced in their new homeland and the progress which they had nonetheless made in the years since arriving on a foreign shore. A new edition, including additional notes and an index, has been published by Books Ulster/LibraryIreland:

Paperback: 700+ pages The Irish in America

ebook: The Irish in America